Makeup mendacity: Cosmetics claims under fire

There are growing concerns over beauty products that claim drug-like effectiveness without adequate proof.

By Bruce Kennedy Nov 8, 2012 5:36PM

Image: Lipstick (Stockbyte/PictureQuest)The search for beauty and beauty-enhancing substances is as old as the human race. And one thing has remained constant over all those millennia: Promises made by a lot of beauty products are, at best, questionable. And some recent claims could also have a lasting financial impact on today's multibillion-dollar cosmetic industry.

In October, the Food and Drug Administration sent an official letter warning Avon (AVP) about marketing cosmetics with claims of biologically enhanced benefits. It said that claims on Avon's web site related to the anti-aging and collagen-boosting benefits of some products "are intended to affect the structure or any function of the human body, rendering them drugs" under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

In September, a similar warning letter was sent to Lancôme, owned by cosmetics giant L'Oreal (LRLCY), about gene, stem cell and skin regeneration claims associated with some of its products. (For its part, a company spokesperson said the company "is committed to complying fully with all laws and regulatory standards.")

And in 2010, the FDA sent out an import alert that put dozens of cosmetic companies -- including L'Oreal, Avon, Revlon (REV) and Estee Lauder (EL) -- on notice for marketing skin care products "with exaggerated 'anti-aging' claims which cause the products to be unapproved new drugs."

These warnings underscore the growing industry surrounding "cosmeceuticals" -- a portmanteau of the words "cosmetics" and "pharmaceuticals." Global sales of these cosmeceuticals reportedly totaled more than $27 billion in 2010. Most of these products are not federally regulated, and few companies publish studies about the claimed effectiveness of their products.

Cosmeceuticals are a "good example of how people can use science-y-ness to try and sell a product," Dr. Ben Goldacre, a medical doctor, researcher and author of the book, "Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks," told the Chicago Tribune last year. "It is used decoratively as marketing in a way that is meaningless."

These aren't real drugs, which require a prescription from a physician, notes Juan Meng, an assistant professor of public relations in the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication who has researched cosmeceuticals. "But, they all claim they have this therapy function, so we spend $50 to $100 for a small jar of cream to put on our skin to make us feel good," she added. "It is interesting, and the profits just keep climbing, much faster than we can even imagine."

Cosmetics is already a highly competitive industry and not without its risks. Revlon's weak cash flow and a high debt burden, for example, are holding back its position compared to rivals like L'Oreal, Avon and Estee Lauder. So there are growing concerns about cosmeceuticals -- especially as they come under legal scrutiny for possible misleading, deceptive and/or false advertising.

"Product manufacturers owe consumers a duty to advertise their products in a manner that does not lead them to believe that the product will do something that it does not do," notes a blog posting about Avon FDA warning written by the Minneapolis law firm of Halunen & Associates, "or add a particular benefit not associated with the product."

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Nov 8, 2012 6:50PM
Nothing new under the sun.  It's always been like this.  My mother manufactured cosmetics and her advertising never promised  anti-aging, remove wrinkles and assorted other quacky claims;  House of Carroll had a good reputation in the region she served. 
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